Artificial Ethics The Trolley Problem is an ethical thought experiment in which sending one innocent person to his or her death saves many lives. If you’re curious about such things, a query on Google Trends shows that interest in the Trolley Problem, until recently relegated to academics, has shot up in recent years. Turns out the Trolley Problem’s underlying issue — pitting human agency against decisions involving life and death — serves as a fruitful way to examine our forthcoming relationships to intelligent and actualized machines such as self-driving cars. In a survey (re/code), Kris Hammond, chief scientist at natural language startup Narrative Science, concludes we’ve nothing to fear. In fact, he argues, the AI-animated machines will likely make better decisions than we might in such situations. Hammond uses the ending of the film I, Robot as an example. In the final scene, a robot has to decide between saving the heroine and saving all of humanity — and chooses the former. Hammond points out that machines coded with our best and most thoughtful logic will of course save humanity. Only in Hollywood are machines experiencing moral lapses.
Crowdfunding What the Rest of the World Recognizes As a Right Crowdfunding can lead to breakthroughs that propel entire industries. The need for it can also show us parts of ourselves we might not want to see, like women having to crowdfund their maternity leaves (Vice). As with legal aid in New Orleans, paid maternity leave is squarely in the category of things that shouldn’t have to be crowdfunded. The U.S. and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world where paid maternity leave isn’t law. That’s shortsighted and it costs businesses money. A lot of money: Women who lack maternity leave are more likely to leave their jobs and turnover of this sort costs American companies $19 billion a year.
When Capitalism Fails When you think of unfettered, destructive capitalism and the developing world, you might think of Dow Chemical and Bhopal, or Shell Oil and Nigeria. But as this devastating Foreign Policy report from Zimbabwe details, the worst characteristics of unabated profit extraction are on full display by largely unregulated companies operating out of China, Russia, and other emerging market economies, including in Africa. The abuses and corruption echo the worst practices of early western capitalism, and the research left us wondering: What can be done about it? Because these companies answer to no one, the truth is: Not much.
Maybe We Should Call It The Internet of Everything Interested in what the future looks like? Our editor in chief John Battelle sees an “Actuated Internet” on the horizon that goes far beyond current depictions of an Internet of Things. Battelle travels to the Valley and goes deep with Android founder Andy Rubin’s new project to create the next biggest thing.
The Water Wars Water is the resource we most count on, and, in the First World at least, it’s been the one we most take for granted. When it’s scarce, food runs short, political unrest becomes the norm, and the world’s diplomats send classified cables that make for scary reading. The Center for Investigative Reporting has reviewed many of those cables, and perhaps the most intriguing insight in this summary report is how civil wars in Syria, much of it now controlled by ISIL, and Yemen, where 14 of 16 aquifers have run dry, ladder to water shortages in 2008–9. And water shortages in one place can create more elsewhere. The report spells out how Saudi Arabia’s lack of water led to the draining of Arizona’s water tables — the Saudis bought land in Arizona to farm wheat for the kingdom — exporting “virtual water” through farming atop one of the US’s driest climates. It’s a new front in the inequality wars. As one classified 2009 cable reads, “the rich always have a creative way of getting water, which not only is unavailable to the poor but also cuts into unreplenishable resources.”
Is the Wall Starting to Crack in North Carolina? North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, who signed anti-LGBT measure HB2 into law, has issued an executive order “clarifying” some of the elements of the law. The order doesn’t change any major element of the bill and, as an executive branch official, McCrory has only limited power here anyway. But it does seem that the outrage against the law is starting to garner activity, if not yet meaningful action. The ongoing business response may be what makes that inevitable: Deutsche Bank announced yesterday that it is holding off on bringing 250 new jobs to the state, joining PayPal and others. Meanwhile, one adult-oriented company has found an unexpected but perhaps effective way to focus its North Carolina customers’ attention on the problem, hitting people’s entertainment needs in a far more primal way than even a Springsteen concert cancellation.
Streaming Services: The New Gateway Drug to Piracy You want Kanye’s record first? Better sign up for Tidal. Need zero-day access to Drake’s upcoming album? Pony up for Apple Music. Wanna stream Adele’s latest? Don’t bother. Sometimes new business models are messy and end up provoking unintended consequences for the disrupters as well as the disrupted. All these conflicting exclusives, the features intended to differentiate the new music-streaming services, are muddying online music services and, according to The Verge’s Ashley Carman, may be driving music fans back to piracy. The need to subscribe to multiple services to get everything makes the proposition too expensive and complicated — and there’s never any question whether The Pirate Bay or Demonoid will have the latest by your favorite. It’s worth remembering that Napster rose not primarily because people like to steal but because the legal rights holders couldn’t get their collective act together. Is it happening again?
The Downside of Open In business, “open” has become one of those attributes that everyone wants. But the world at large can close down in ugly ways, as Quartz’s Kevin J. Delaney writes in this soulful look at what happens when closed becomes the default. Using the rising barriers in Europe as his prime example, Delaney is frank about the risks of open (it’s messy, it can skew competition) but still champions it. We all share the same world. Borders between countries are, to one degree or another, arbitrary.
New Ridesharing Service for Women May Not Pass Go For a wide variety of reasons, from safety to solidarity, a ridesharing service only for women seems like an outstanding idea. Launching next week in Boston, Chariot for Women will offer better background checks, only female drivers, and no surge pricing. Sounds great, but it’s probably illegal, a bitter irony considering how Uber, whose failings this new service seeks to counter, succeeded at first precisely by flaunting existing laws and policies.
Slacking in Public Slack the software tool is in large part about transparency in organizations, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Slack the company is aiming to be transparent with some of its most important partners. Slack’s goal is to be a platform where others create value. Its executives know that the most successful platforms are those that make it easiest for developers to know what’s coming up, so they can be prepared and do their best work. In the service of that, Slack has published an ongoing Trello-based platform roadmap for developers. It’s new and there’s not much there so far — we’ll see how it develops — but it’s a sign that one maturing unicorn knows who it needs to satisfy.
GE Fires Back at Sanders, But It’s No Stranger to Government Help Now that the presidential campaign has reached New York, everyone is getting cranky. In their attempt to challenge the Republicans for name-calling, the Democratic candidates are taking turns calling each other unqualified. One of them, Bernie Sanders, has wandered into a back-and-forth with GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt. Bernie listed GE as one of the companies ruining the moral fiber of America via tax avoidance. In a Washington Post op-ed, Immelt fires back (“we’ve never been a big hit with socialists”), then gets down to a detailed overview of some of GE’s good works, including a big factory in Sanders’s home state of Vermont. In complicating but related news, it was revealed this week that GE recently got Boston and Massachusetts officials to double promised tax breaks in return for getting the conglomerate to move its headquarters there. Everyone hates government, till they don’t …
Atlas Obscura Celebrates Curiosity With the Weird and Wondrous In NewCo’s latest Video Spotlight, Atlas Obscura cofounder Dylan Thuras discusses how his company is creating an online compendium of “the world’s most curious and awe-inspiring places.” Next week is Obscura Day, celebrating weird and wonderful experiences all around the world. And see all our Spotlights here.
My Office Is Right Next to the Inkjet Cartridges Wanna work at Staples all day? No, not behind the counter handing out keys to the photocopiers, but as a place you go all the time to do all your work. Those Staples stores are spacious, floor traffic has been decreasing for at least seven years, and Staples can see WeWork’s sky-high valuation just as easily as you can. So the company is teaming with Workbar to carve out some of its space for office-sharing (WSJ). It’s not just Staples: Sears is already subletting space and Macy’s is trying it, too. Retail space is pricey; companies with too much of it have to think outside the big box. (NB: Staples won’t offer free beer, but it is promising bottomless coffee.)
Reddit Downvotes Harassment Is Reddit, last seen removing a “canary” notice, trying to be less of an efficient harassment delivery system? It’s now giving people the opportunity to block others, but a brief trip to Reddit.com reveals both outrage over the frankly modest move and its ramifications — and a handful of possible workarounds. There’s a fundamental disconnect between Reddit’s professed core values, which are admirable, and what many of its users are there to do. The very openness that make Reddit a thrilling place is also the thing that makes it scary.
New Media, Old Habits Best way to fight Periscope? Cut a deal with Periscope. Especially if Periscope is paying. Periscope’s parent Twitter announced yesterday that it is paying $10 million for the global rights to stream Thursday night NFL games. It’s potentially good for both Twitter (much-needed audience) and the NFL (a step toward monetizing viewers who were otherwise watching for free), although it could also lead us to the bad old days of the monoculture (Verge), when we were all watching the same thing at the same time. That’s certainly what Twitter hopes will be the case.
Tesla Cops to Hubris. That’s a Good Thing The advance orders on Tesla’s Model 3 suggest it has a bright future. But in the meantime, it needs to clear up its present. First-quarter unit sales (WSJ) were about 10 percent less than predicted. There were also problems manufacturing one of its current models, which the company admitted as “hubris in adding far too much new technology,” which it could not deliver in quantity. Is that damning with boisterous praise? Financial analysts may focus on the quarterly miss, but what’s most interesting to us is that the company acknowledged its shortcoming using a word — hubris — that most visionary companies exude without owning up to. Regardless of intent, it’s a welcome act of transparency from a company that’s going to have to be open with the nearly 300,000 people who have put down $300 million worth of deposits for the Model 3.
The Future Is Already Here. It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed You’ll never guess where William Gibson’s most famous quote has come alive: Silicon Valley startup Zipline is prepping its drones to transport blood and pharmaceuticals in Rwanda (NYT), cutting down the transfer time from weeks or months to mere hours. This will make Rwanda, one of the poorest nations on the planet, the first place with a true drone delivery network.